Floating on his back in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston on June 3, Don Gulis was oblivious to his reddening skin. "I stayed out there for about three hours," says Gulis, 39. "Man, I got so sunburned that day." Not that he minded. When he returned home that night, says Gulis, "I thought, 'I'm ready to go back tomorrow. I want to do it again.' "

The burning enthusiasm is understandable. Before that day, Gulis had been unable to enjoy the Galveston beaches since 1982, when he was paralyzed from the chest down after crashing his car in a drunk-driving accident. (No one else was injured.) Since sand and salt water are a wheelchair's worst enemies, it became impossible for Gulis, now the founder and president of the nonprofit Action Against Drinking and Driving, to get any closer than the boardwalk.

To help Gulis and others like him, four members of the Galveston beach patrol got together last January and put together a fleet of seven sand-and-surf-friendly wheelchairs with big wheels that don't bog down in the sand. "They look like Tonka toys," says beach patrol supervisor Dave Paris, 26, who helped construct the chairs, based on a design by Florida lifeguard Mike Hensler, 49.

Peter Davis, 35, assistant director of the Galveston beach patrol, which funded the cost of materials—about $500 a chair—and provides them at no charge, estimates that about 30 people now use the chairs each week. "They just glide over the sand," says Gulis. "It's almost like four-wheel drive."